Russia and The Other: A Cultural Approach
Slavic 194



Russian History:
A Brief Summary

National Emblem Of Russia

Situated on the great Eurasian plane, Russia has been vulnerable to invasions from both East and West (Mongols, 13-14th cent.;  French, 1812; Germans, 1941) but was also well-placed to expand laterally, once a centralized autocratic state emerged under the grand princes of Moscow  (15-16th cent.). Today Russia spans the entire northern part of the Eurasian continent.

Adoption of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium (988?) brought Russia into the fold of Christian Europe and at the same time set it apart from the Roman Catholic West. Therein lies the beginning of Russia’s ambivalence toward the West and the recurrent belief in the country’s special destiny as the bearer of true faith, whether Orthodox Christianity,  Slavic commonwealth, or Communism.

With its persistent mediaeval legacy and barely touched by the Renaissance and Reformation, Russia emerges on the world stage only under Peter the Great (1682-1725). He established a lasting pattern for meeting the challenge of the West: selective adoption of modern Western institutions in war, industry, science, and education without diminishing the centralized state and its power of confiscatory taxation.

Where the reforms were successful, achievements over the last two centuries have been spectacular: literature (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky), music (Chaikovsky, Shostakovich), art (Malevich), theater and ballet (Stanislavsky, Diaghilev), film (Eisenstein), science (Mendeleev, Pavlov), weapons and space technology (Sputnik). Russia became a military superpower when it defeated Napoleon (1812-14) and remains one to this day. But serfdom was abolished only in 1861, land ownership is still unresolved, and historic grievances in the empire’s borderlands to this day threaten the integrity of the state.

Profound antagonism between modernizing trends and concentration of power at the top — be it a tsar or a communist dictatorship (1917-1991) — has produced an unstable polity. Periods of extreme repression (notably under Stalin) have alternated with episodes of exuberant liberation, followed by reforms, in turn, undermined by renewed centralization and repression.

Emancipated from communism and the Soviet Union (1986-1991), Russia is struggling to institute a federal democracy and a market economy while its foreign policy is oriented to a partnership with the West.

Copyright © 1999 by Gregory Freidin

Last updated 09/18/2003